Jooyeon Song has always loved nail art but as her career took off she found less and less time in her schedule for manicures. While studying for her MBA at Stanford she met her now co-founder David Miro Llopis and together they started ManiMe, a company that sells custom-fit, stick on gel manicures and pedicures. It was important to Song that all the gel nail art be vegan, non-toxic, and cruelty free – something she has achieved and ManiMe holds the unique title of being the first one in the nail beauty space to do so. Today the Santa Monica, California-based entrepreneur is focused on continuing to grow her beauty tech start-up, expand their product repertoire and generally being ‘hardworking rich.’
Song’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
Since I was born and raised in South Korea, a global beauty innovation hub, I have always been in love with gel manicures and nail art. I consistently went to the salon growing up. However, after completing my undergraduate degree at Seoul National University, I started my career as a management consultant and I was too busy to sit down and have my hands immobilized for a two hour appointment at the salon every two weeks. I also didn’t like the chemicals and harmful UV lights that gel manicures required because it can result in damaged nails and skin. I wanted the ability to change my nails as easily as my shoes without the time commitment of a salon and I realized that many other people wanted this, too. I voiced this concept to my now co-founder, David Miro Llopis, during our time at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and we decided to launch ManiMe. With my background in 3D modeling and his background in ecommerce we thought: how can we take this technology and use it to solve the at-home nail problem? Our solution is the first-ever, custom-fit, stick on gels, developed through our proprietary 3D modeling, machine learning, and laser cutting technologies.
How do you define success?
I’ve been so inspired by other women ahead of me and their ability to create impactful change. Someone I really look up to, who is one of my greatest examples of success, is Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx – she is a female founder that many women look up to. To me, success would be to inspire other young women to have the courage and confidence to pursue their ideas and start their own businesses, and, of course, to save many young people time on getting their nails done while they pursue their dreams.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
My biggest professional successes has been receiving the Allure Best in Beauty award only one year after ManiMe launched. It was such an honor to have all our hard work recognized by such a huge award so early on, and we’ve only improved and expanded since then! I was also featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2020, which was both a personal and professional success. I’m fortunate to say that 2020 was a year of growth for ManiMe despite it being such a hard year otherwise, and it felt amazing to earn that. Another success to me that feels even more personal was moving from Korea to the US and being able to successfully launch my business here, and also being able to build an inclusive community at ManiMe and give back to the community that I’m from.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
ManiMe’s greatest challenge right now is scaling our business while maintaining our high-quality product standard and meeting the needs of our community of nail artists and customers. We were fortunate to see a massive surge of interest and demand in our at-home nail experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With salon closures and limited availability, people were more willing to explore an at-home application and craved the durability of gel nails. Now, we are capturing this momentum and trying to bring our one-of-a-kind nail solution to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Like any young startup, there are always unexpected challenges that require quick problem solving. I am so appreciative of the ManiMe team as we regularly brainstorm together to solve challenges and quickly pivot to continue producing long-lasting, custom-fit gels.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
I started my business with a non-permanent visa, and the pandemic was a very uncertain time for me – I wasn’t sure if I could stay in the US, which was scary and out of my control. Even when I needed to travel to South Korea to establish a R&D center, I was scared that there could be a situation where I wouldn’t be able to come back to the US. Another challenge that stemmed from the pandemic was the rise of hate crimes, harassment and discrimination against Asian immigrants like myself as well as the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. At times, it has been incredibly difficult to continue moving forward with day-to-day activities when trying to cope with the emotions of fear, sadness, and frustration. Fortunately, ManiMe has received an abundance of support from our community. We will always stand against all forms of racism, discrimination and harassment and firmly stand with the #StopAsianHate movement.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
For female entrepreneurs, when pitching to investors (I was in Silicon Valley, specifically) most of them were male, and had a hard time wrapping their head around the concept of ManiMe. They saw going to a salon as an activity that their wife or daughter enjoyed, and didn’t understand the pain points around getting professional manicures. For women, and those pitching an innovation in the beauty industry specifically, this is something to prepare for.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
On my darkest days, I find the most inspiration from my team at ManiMe HQ. At ManiMe, we value care, transparency, and excellence. Each member of the ManiMe team exemplifies these values everyday in their work and that inspires me to keep going. One of my favorite parts of being a CEO is building a culture that aligns with these values. I love helping every team member grow, and feel included. I so appreciate that ManiMe team members are so nimble and willing to collaborate to solve whatever challenge we may be facing.
Who is your most important role model?
My mom is one of my role models. Growing up in a small town in South Korea, she only had daughters until my brother was born when I was 12, and regularly received comments from neighbors, friends and relatives about how she should have a son. My mother always brushed the comments off and replied with, “I actually would like to have another daughter!” She always encouraged me to do anything a boy could do and more. She is also someone who taught me the value of hard work and resilience. She is a big fan of this made up term, ‘hardworking-rich.’ To be ‘hardworking-rich’ you focus on how hard you tried, not the result. If you are hardworking-rich you will be happy because you’re motivated to always do your best, instead of just being fixated on the results. From a tender age, I learned from how important it is that I be proud of myself and the work I have done.